Between Colleagues

by Ismail Muhammad

Certain things were of no concern. Her hand in the small of my back by way of greeting, her grip on my shoulder as she exited the seminar room. Not worth my attention, I decided. When she invited me to her home in the Oakland Hills, on Pinehaven, I obliged her. And why not? Despite the sense of inferiority that was always close at hand these days, like a chatty skeptic floating just above my left ear, I was her colleague. She reminded me often of this fact: “Forget the graduate student-assistant professor divide, dispense with the niceties.” There was a paper of mine to discuss, she said – over wine and tapas, it turned out when I arrived, but still. Before I could get my mind around what had happened, I was sitting on the edge of her bed, slipping a condom on while she watched from the other side of the room. A nose hair trimmer sat inert on the nightstand next to me. I must have seemed hesitant. “On a business trip to New York,” she explained. Her words sufficed. I left early the next morning, feeling a bit triumphant.
      And if things did mature beyond my ability to control them?
      Going home, the engine beneath the hood of my ’87 Camry sputtered and I stalled just before Telegraph on 63rd. The wine we’d had that night was infinitely better than the $15 Trader Joe’s-brand grape piss I was used to. How much had she spent on that bottle? Probably more than it would cost to fix my shitty car.
      I got home two hours later, checked Gmail, found a simply worded message reminiscent of her almost-monotone in my inbox: “thank you for coming i hope you appreciated the night as much as i did, don’t get weird on me.”
      She enumerated rules as simple as her tastes in the days that followed. I was hers on Wednesdays and Saturday nights, the only nights she could hire her preferred baby sitter. Sexual innovations other than those she initiated would not be tolerated. At no point would I eat anything in her home but the wine and tapas that she served. There was to be no showering or brushing of teeth before I left. Under no circumstances was I to leave any of my belongings behind upon leaving. Our arrangement was not material for the lively trade in department gossip. For reasons of ethics and security, I would not be able to take a seminar with her again.
      I admit to some confusion. What did she want out of me? She’d given me a B+ on a research paper of mine, scribbled out a perfunctory paragraph of commentary that ceased abruptly, in an incomplete sentence with a word scratched out where her pen had met the end of the page. “I hope you take the strenuous argument which I carried out in your margins as a sign of how seriously I took your argument as a necessary corrective to trauma theory’s psychoanalytic bent,” she wrote. There were all of five comments penned in chicken scratch, meager validation for thirty-five pages of work. Most consisted of one-word academic catchphrases: “Interesting”, “Problematic”, “Troubling”. I close read every hastily penned letter of her commentary, yet located nothing that indicated concepts like passion, lust, or even curiosity in my person.
      Briefly one night, I caught our reflection in the mirror that hung opposite her bed. There was her back, the color of cream, a bit ghoulish looking with her black hair undulating across it. Her shoulder blades jutted sharply, writhed with every movement, looking like a pair of wings struggling to split her flesh. In silence she rocked on top, occasionally deigning to lift her pelvis and arch her back in a weird performance of an arousal she was still finding her way towards. Of myself, only my legs were visible, splayed and still on the bed, my thighs flexing sometimes when her ass met them. My scrotum looked like ice cream that’d melted and been refrozen. Then her hair veiled my eyes and I waited for her to be done, then for myself to be done, with only the rhythm of her rocking and the pressure of her hands on my chest as proof I was enjoying myself. Afterwards she fell back onto the bed, flicked sweat off her chest and reached into her nightstand drawer. With a small white handkerchief she wiped between her legs. Pulling on her underwear, she asked me how my research was going with all the studied casualness of a professor encountering a student in Wheeler’s wide public school hallways. She went to pour a few glasses of prosecco and I dawdled in her walk-in closet, taking inventory of her heels, wondering how she afforded them on her assistant professor’s salary. Before I left the next morning I made sure to ask for gas money to fill my roommate’s car. She cocked an eyebrow, then obliged, shoved cash at me like it was shit.
      On a Tuesday evening, two months into our arrangement, my computer emitted a tone and I raised my head from my bed to find a gchat from her: “want to come tonight the babysitter was available?” I got up, typed “my car is still being repaired, can’t borrow my roommate’s tonight, he is suspicious,” then laid back down to watch for a response. Sheryl is typing flashed at the bottom of the chat, then disappeared. I waited. She responded five minutes later, “is that a no?” I got up, typed “idk what do you want to do?”, thought better of it, hit backspace, decided to let her wait a bit, and laid back down to watch the screen. Ten minutes later the tone came through again, “give me your address i will pick you up.”
      Forty-five minutes later the headlights of her 2012 Audi A8 swept across Broadway Terrace’s hairpin turns as we made our way to her home, lighting every exquisite facade as she struggled with the steering wheel. She navigated with some difficulty to avoid the cars that plummeted down the hill. I reclined in the passenger seat, let my hand run over the recently polished leather. She glanced over momentarily, and winced as I fingered the car’s slick surfaces. Had he of the nose hair trimmers recently come home to treat his baby right? I put my fingernails to the leather and began to apply pressure. “Don’t do that,” she said. “He knows every inch of this car.” I pressed down anyway, watched her eyes widen and her skin become tight around the eyes. Then the headlights flicked upwards with a mechanical whir as we went uphill, illuminating a hurtling car at the last possible moment. She pumped the breaks, our bodies pitched forward, my head smashed into the dashboard, I felt gravity pin me down as my body slammed back into the leather’s comfort. Looking down, I saw that my fingernails had left white indentations in the seat bottom. “Fuck, I’m sorry,” she said, glancing down at the white marks, then up at my forehead leaking blood onto my shirtfront. “Fuck,” she said.
      She hurried me through the atrium and living room, pressing a handkerchief to my forehead to make sure I didn’t drip onto her white leather furniture. Gaudy, I thought for the first time. Out on the patio I rubbed an ice cube against the gash while she poured wine. From between the riot of shrubbery which dominated the hillside, the bay flashed and twinkled beneath me; traffic slugged along the I-80; stars peered down at me like a thousand little surveillance cameras. It was amazing what became visible up there, I thought as my chin touched my chest. When I next heard her voice I was raising my head out of sleep; her Prada heel crushed the ice cube against the wooden deck and she thrust a glass in my direction. I sipped while she dabbed my forehead with her handkerchief.
      In bed we lay spooning. I muttered “Weren’t there rules to this?”, but her hand had already crept around my pelvis. I sighed into a pillow and she wiped her hand against the sheets. “Far be it from me to compromise our arrangement,” she said.
Ismail Muhammad is a doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley.

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